Legislators at every level have adopted an operational ethos of “ignore all relevant laws and sign it.” This is a deeply concerning trend, and one that will result in dystopian realizations as politics continue moving toward the extremes. However, my fragile hope for the future remains intact thanks to the courts’ consistent rejection of this ethos. The University of Michigan is only the latest subject of both this trend and justices ruling in a case concerning our most potent liberty: speech.


On May 2, 2018, the University was sued by Speech First, an organization dedicated to upholding the First Amendment on college campuses. The subject of the legal dispute was the University’s Bias Response Team (BRT), which, according to Speech First, stifled freedom of speech and was therefore unconstitutional. In September 2019, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the BRT “acts by way of implicit threat of punishment and intimidation to quell speech,” and the University agreed to disband the BRT. This case is hugely symbolic, more so than it may appear.


The most basic freedom belonging to each person is life, defined by their freedom of conscience. Both life and free conscience are impossible to breach without direct action perpetrated by one unto another. Freedom of speech, therefore, is the concretization of our freedom of conscience. And fundamentally, this is why Speech First v. Schlissel is so symbolic: The courts defended our most basic right. 


No student at the University should ever feel discriminated against. Yet, while the BRT held this same belief as its cornerstone, the metric used to determine if an offense had occurred –– the University’s anti-harassment policy –– did not offer any objective definitions as to what constituted a violation. And here lies the unconstitutionality, as described by the Department of Justice: “The University imposes a system of arbitrary censorship of, and punishment for, constitutionally protected speech.”


This broader conflict is not unique to the University. Colleges across the country face similar challenges in trying to secure welcoming campus environments without infringing upon students’ First Amendment rights. In this, I’m sympathetic with the universities. We’re riding a 50-year wave of legal victories for equality in a number of areas; so, in keeping with the trend, let’s try to fix campus speech, right? Sure, but not like this.


Today’s political climate is one of friction and frustration on both sides. Any comment not perfectly impartial sets off a firestorm, regardless of the reasoning behind the statement, the context or the speaker. We are on a hair trigger. So, how, in this era so characterized by scrutinizing the most minute actions and verbiage, did the University fly right by the First Amendment?


Sadly, today, the legitimacy of actions taken in pursuit of something noble are largely ignored. Those in charge act impulsively without considering their actions. The University wanted to create a safer campus climate, so it created an agency capable of implicitly punishing students who voiced opinions that offended others. To me, this sounds like a paragon of this trend, a laudable end to be achieved by censorship. And the courts said no. 


At last, herein lies my optimism for the fate of America: the judiciary. Currently, it seems the shared methodology to enact change, among both parties, is to act now and consider legality later. And yet, the courts have stood tall. The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of California for violating Article 1, Section 10; a federal judge blocked Alabama’s abortion ban; and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the University’s Bias Response Team. This case was altogether important and worrying, but I find its conclusion reassuring for the future. The courts remain the protectors of our fundamental rights amidst brazen violations, and it looks like they might just continue holding the torch even if legislators at every level keep trying to blow it out.


David Lisbonne is a junior in the College of Engineering and can be reached at lisbonne@umich.edu.

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